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November 2021    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 47, No. 11   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Dive Travel in the Time of Coronavirus

when the passengers and crew test positive

from the November, 2021 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

We live in changing times when nothing about international travel is certain, and COVID infections can change or destroy well-laid plans. The virus is not going away. We must learn to live with this or risk eternal disappointment. These are especially difficult times for operators of liveaboards and dive centers abroad.

Pre-trip testing of all passengers and crew is mandatory.

Liveaboard dive boats can be effectively Petri dishes for infection. To avoid contagion, liveaboards must rely both on strict protocols by the crew and adherence to those protocols by the passengers. Vaccination does not stop you from carrying the disease but enables your body to resist it and avoid hospitalization and possibly death. However, we've all heard stories of people refusing to wear masks because it impinges on their freedom, which really is the immoral freedom to infect others.

In the October issue of Undercurrent, we mentioned a COVID incident aboard an Undersea Hunter Fleet vessel (MV Argo) during a 36-hour crossing to Cocos Island, when it was discovered that one of its crew was infected with the coronavirus. The owners acted decisively, the vessel returned to port, and further testing revealed two more crew members were infected. We also noted that when flying, you must be concerned about the passengers across the aisle. Indeed, worry about the others on your liveaboard too.

Our articles triggered Carole Server (New York, NY) to write us about a trip she took a few weeks earlier, August 20-30, on the MV Sea Hunter, when there was an outbreak of COVID on board.

Out of 18 passengers, 14 tested positive. At least five crew members also tested positive.

Carole's complaints seemed worthy of investigation, so we cross-referenced with other passengers and Avi Kapfler, the owner of the fleet, who often captains one of his vessels.

Carole told us that "All passengers were fully vaccinated with either Moderna or Pfizer vaccines. We were led to believe that the crew was vaccinated too.

"All guests [on our trip] had been PCR tested and proved negative. Members of the crew were tested the day of departure but by antigen rather than PCR." [A scientific research group in the U.K. has proved that properly administered lateral-flow antigen tests can be more than 90 percent accurate. - BBC (October 14)]

"One of the divemasters had been working with Nat Geo photographers on the previous trip, which had returned to port three days before our departure. He was possibly exposed to COVID as the Nat Geo photographers tested positive just after returning to the U.S. and had informed the Undersea Hunter Fleet.

"An engineer who had been on the previous trip with the Nat Geo photographers had tested positive and did not turn up for our trip. [This was confirmed by Avi.] The divemaster who had been working with the Nat Geo folk tested negative on the day of departure. Three days later, he disappeared.

"Finally, after another three days, the guests were informed that the sick divemaster [actually the cruise director] was a suspected COVID case. We asked that he be tested and were informed that they did not have tests onboard. My husband and I travel with tests, so we offered one of ours. I had to chase them down to insist they test the sick divemaster with one of our tests. There were delays as the office had to be consulted.

"They eventually tested him, and he was positive. They woke everyone up and asked them to come into the lounge, and told the rest of the guests that the divemaster had tested positive. They then asked us to vote on whether we wanted to stay and finish the rest of the trip, with two more dive days and then the crossing back.

"All the guests wanted to go back immediately as we were at least 36 hours away from a hospital. The crew wanted to wait until the morning to depart, so the dock was now 48 hours away. When we returned to port in Punta Arenas, we were told that the MV Argo was on the dock, and we had to remain at anchor and on the boat, adding another 12 hours of viral loading for a total of 60 hours before we could disembark." (Undercurrent learned that the height of the tide affected vessel movements in the port, and the Sea Hunter was not given permission to dock until the Costa Rican health authorities were in place to PCR test all on board.)

"In the morning, we moved to the dock, and the [Costa Rica] Health Ministry was on hand to PCR test everyone. Out of 18 passengers, 14 tested positive. At least five crew members also tested positive. Anyone with a positive test result had to quarantine for 10 days as we were all vaccinated.

"Out of the 14 positive cases, some had no symptoms, some like me had very mild symptoms, others were quite ill but did not need to be hospitalized, and one woman was still in intensive care at the hospital in Costa Rica as of September 30. What a nightmare.

"We were not offered much support from the Undersea Hunter Fleet. We were offered 30 percent off our next booking and $500 cash each. For many, this was a hardship as quarantined guests had up to 10 days of hotel expenses.

"My husband and I love Cocos and have taken eight trips with the Undersea Hunter Fleet. They are clearly the best operation available out there. We traveled with them in September 2020, and they had more protocols, which should have been kept even after vaccines were available, such as daily temperature tests.

"So what went wrong? I think simply the Delta variant was newish, and the operation was not paying enough attention to what was going on globally regarding breakthrough infections. Therefore, they had not updated their protocols in light of the changing COVID landscape. I can understand this.

"What I cannot understand is the series of untruths they told us, starting with the crew being vaccinated, to not having tests on board, to not wanting to move the Argo when we reached Punta Arenas so we could be tested upon arrival instead of having to spend an extra 12 hours viral loading on the boat."

Carole ended her message to Undercurrent by saying: "I understand that this has been an impossible time for dive operators, and I sympathize. I hope they learned from this experience and have adopted better protocols. If so, we will travel with them again. The COVID landscape has been impossible for anyone to navigate."

Laura Kelleher (Del Mar, CA) was also on that trip. She says, "Passengers did get very sick. Some arrived before departure sneezing. All passengers were PCR tested, and all but one were fully vaccinated. The non-vaccinated passenger had COVID the month before. I was fully vaccinated for months before and also had COVID the month before, anyway.

"Many people tested positive, and many were sick, but most mildly. It's impossible to know where the outbreak started, and vaccinated people are at risk. I think we should not blame the Undersea Hunter Fleet, and we shouldn't pretend vaccination protects us completely. We make our choices and take our chances and hope for the best."

Of course, we asked Avi Kapfler of the Undersea Hunter Fleet about this, and he acknowledged the story. He said, "The fleet's protocols call for several measures of sanitizing and cleaning as part of the vessel preparation, and pre-trip testing of all passengers and crew is mandatory." But, the pre-trip tests weren't enough to stop the virulent virus. Interestingly, one of the divemasters (Luis) was an emergency room doctor taking a sabbatical.

The pre-trip tests weren't enough to stop the virulent virus.

Regardless of passengers voting, Avi said that it was his decision to order the vessel to return to Punta Arenas; it is not the decision of the crew or the passengers. It was his alone. Once the boat arrived at Punta Arenas, they had to wait for a suitable height-of-tide to move both vessels safely, and that was one cause of the delay.

Avi has since purchased a large quantity of COVID tests in Israel for the fleet, but he points out that they are actually illegal to use as only official labs and clinics can test for COVID in Costa Rica.

COVID has provided everyone with a steep learning curve. It appears the Undersea Hunter operation has learned from the incident and put new protocols in place, which they employed with the later MV Argo incident. Alan Steenstrup of Undersea Hunter Fleet confirmed, "We've amped up our protocols since Carole's trip."

What this Means for Your Trip

Let this salutary tale be a warning to anyone intending to take a liveaboard trip soon. Even top-quality operations like Undersea Hunter can get caught out by COVID infections. Your trip might not be completed as intended, and you might even find yourself staying away from home longer than you planned. Forewarned is forearmed.

You might feel that vessel operators should compensate disappointed passengers for the cost of quarantine accommodation. Equally, you might think that the passenger identified as patient zero should bear the costs of those so infected. It ain't going to happen!

Travelers need to ensure they have the insurance or resources to cover additional expenses incurred through enforced quarantine. Expecting local suppliers to cover these costs will surely drive them out of business, and that will be the end of these exotic diving opportunities for all of us. Although they can instigate protocols and mandate precautions, you cannot expect them to fend off the unseen threat of an infected person.

- John Bantin

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